Celebrated fashion line raises funds for charity decades after firm’s demise
By J.B. Miller
As printed in The Marketplace - January/February 2018
High fashion ladies apparel is a fickle business. Each year new creations debut on Paris and New York’s fashion runways, setting style trends for the coming year. When the scene is repeated next season, the current “must-have” party gowns soon become aging fashion statements, finding their way to thrift shops and on-line markets for buyers of vintage or Halloween party attire and finally disappearing altogether.
Susan Kauffman, however, had other ideas. In 2005, after attending Alexander Wallace’s funeral and seeing photos and articles about Eugene Alexander, a fashion house popular in the 1980’s and 90’s, co-owned by Wallace and partner, Eugene Stutzman, Kauffman came away deeply impressed. “The gowns’ sheer beauty was truly a work of art. Among many photos of celebrities, here was Joan Rivers wearing a Eugene Alexander gown while hosting the ‘Tonight Show,’ I wanted to know more,” she noted.
“Eugene and I were both attending Covenant Mennonite Fellowship in Sarasota. But I had no idea he was this highly successful fashion designer. He never talked about it,” she said.
Born in Holmes County Ohio, Eugene Stutzman developed a love for color, textures and clothing at an early age. His mother, Erma, taught him to sew on her machine. He graduated from Goshen College in 1973, majoring in art education. “My time at Goshen College was shaped by current events, social justice and particularly the Vietnam War. Goshen College did a great job preparing me to live in the world,” he explained, “Being away from home worked well for me.”
After graduation Stutzman met Wallace. A year later they moved to Sarasota. Working various jobs kept food on the table, but sewing and design were always present. Their break came in 1981, while a Hollywood movie was being filmed in the area. Wallace, a movie extra, became friends with the costume designer, who saw several of Eugene’s creations. “He encouraged us to hire an agent and develop a line to take to New York, Stutzman stated. “We worked feverishly to make the spring fashion season and we headed to New York with our collection.” One piece, the “water lily jacket,’ caught the eye of a Saks Fifth Avenue buyer when the elevator she was riding opened unexpectedly on a floor showcasing new designs. A few days later she placed an order. Soon more orders poured in. Eugene Alexander was born.
“We had four months to fill the orders but didn’t have any employees or even a shop,” Stutzman recalled. Returning to Sarasota, they borrowed money with the help of family members, hired employees and met the August 31st deadline. From the beginning, the company endeavored to be a values-based organization. “We committed to pay a competitive wage and keep our production in-house to ensure good working conditions,” said Stutzman. However, his concern for providing steady income for their employees added to the stress of producing successful fashions, season after season.
Despite the anxiety, success soon became evident with the Eugene Alexander label being worn by women at the Academy Awards, presidential inaugural balls, and featured in movies and TV shows, including Dynasty and Dallas. “I felt particularly proud when I saw Rue McClanahan (best known for roles in the TV hits The Golden Girls and Maude) wearing the water lily jacket on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards,” Stutzman said.
In 1987, Time magazine had planned a cover photo of Whitney Houston in a Eugene Alexander gown. But the Iran-Contra scandal intervened and an Oliver North photo pushed Houston inside. However, at Houston’s death, the photo appeared on the cover of Life magazine’s memorial edition.
The early 90’s brought a change to high fashion. “The ‘grunge’ look was in and fewer people were dressing up. “We had 35 employees at the time. There was pressure to produce, our employees depended on us,” Stutzman said. “But we couldn’t survive. We closed the business in 1993 and declared bankruptcy in 1994. We lost everything.”
Suffering from bipolar disorder, Wallace took his own life in 2005.
Susan Kauffman described her shock when she began uncovering the Eugene Alexander story and found there was nothing left, no gowns, no patterns, nothing. “I said, ‘This is terrible, we have to do something! We must find ways to celebrate these iconic gowns.’ So I went on-line and began buying gowns through various websites, and over time rescued about 400 gowns.”
The next year, Covenant Mennonite Fellowship sponsored a fashion show to raise funds for the congregation. Once more, Eugene Alexander gowns were on the fashion runway. A rebirth had occurred, but now the gowns were being used to benefit charities. Since then, the gowns have been used for other fundraisers including the YMCA, combating homelessness, and United Cerebral Palsy.
In 2016, Rachel Smucker, a student recruiter for Goshen College, became acquainted with Kauffman. “I was introduced to Eugene earlier, and Susan challenged me to think about what I could do,” Smucker explained.
Returning to Goshen, Smucker met with college and city representatives and a county-wide fashion week was planned providing community-based events showcasing the creativity of the area.
The week’s highlight was a fashion show at the Goshen Theatre, where over 300 people were wowed by models walking the runway in 60 Eugene Alexander gowns — gowns like those worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary Hart and Whitney Houston. “The best part of the night was seeing Eugene’s story being told in front of all these people,” Smucker, the show’s producer observed. “I could feel the energy as people discovered this person, who they didn’t know, making his fashion relevant today.” The Goshen Theater benefited as well, raising funds for their renovation program.
The path from a rural Ohio town to the pinnacle of high fashion — red carpets, presidential inaugural balls and high society pages seem most unlikely. For Eugene Stutzman however, the impossible dream became reality. Now seeing his gowns, once destined for thrift shops, repurposed to raise money for causes that both Stutzman and Wallace believe in, provides an enduring legacy for a storied career. ◆